‘I’ve Had An Awakening, I’ve Woken Up’: Piers Morgan Exclusive Interview On His Past With Meghan Markle And Fall Out With Donald Trump

'When I look back at the Meghan Markle stuff, maybe there was a better way of handling it'

Piers Morgan

by Polly Vernon |

In the course of three months, one lockdown and the progression so far of a god awful pandemic, Piers Morgan has gone from being the breakfast TV anchorman most right-thinking, left leaning, liberal-identifying types pride themselves on absolutely loathing – to being the one with whom they’re astounded to find themselves agreeing.

The passion and fury Piers expresses daily on live TV, in response to what he views as the Government’s rank incompetence in handling the coronavirus crisis, his repeated demands MPs explain themselves, his refusal to be distracted by their bluster and spin, has led to a blanket Tory boycott of Good Morning Britain, record-breaking viewing figures for the show and support for Piers from some unexpected quarters.

The Times’ Caitlin Moran placed him at the coveted number one slot of her Celebwatch column, saying, ‘Right-on Piers. Definitely not the hero Gotham wanted – but the hero, it turned out, Gotham needed.’ The Guardian’s John Crace called him ‘the voice of the nation’; the paper’s former editor Alan Rusbridger – a long-term detractor – referred to Piers’ ‘renaissance’ on a podcast, calling him ‘the voice of reason’.

‘On the day [left-wing activists] Ash Sarkar and Owen Jones tweeted their support, I realised the apocalypse had truly arrived,’ Piers tells me over the phone. I called him after our attempted Zoom failed; I’ve got him on speaker, and I’m letting him run, because that’s what he does. The best you can hope for when interviewing Piers Morgan – and this is my fourth time of trying – is occasional, brief opportunities to steer him in a slightly more purposeful direction, like a canoe over rapids.

‘But listen, the people who think I’ve had a massive transformation haven’t followed my career very well,’ he says. It’s 9.30am on a Thursday, he’s just come off air. He’s hyped, vocal and exhausting in a way you might ascribe to leftover telly adrenaline if you didn’t know he’s always like this. ‘Go back to the stuff I used to do on gun control in America, or the stuff on The Mirror, 9/11, the Iraq war [Piers, who edited The Mirror from 1995 to 2004, campaigned against Britain joining the US in that war]… When life’s got serious, I’ve adopted a similar treatment. I can see why some people think it’s a seismic transformation, but I don’t.’

Either way, they like it, I say. ‘Yes, because [those newly-won supporters] see this as me being anti-Conservative. I see it as me being anti an incompetent Government. If you have a political bias, you’re going to see that bias playing out with someone like me. But I don’t have that political bias motivating me. I just see lack of leadership. I can see Jacinda Ardern and Angela Merkel, and say: that’s leadership in a pandemic. And I look at the populist leaders, from the guy in Brazil, to Trump, to Boris, and I see a consistency of failure.’

Vehemently pro-female. Trump-critical. Serious, furious, heartfelt. It’s not what you’d necessarily expect from the tabloid newspaper editor turned popular breakfast TV contrarian, who’s Marmited his way into the hearts, or on to the hate-lists, of the entire British population during the last five years of his GMB tenure, picking fights with everyone from radical vegans to Daniel Craig’s papoose to Meghan Markle to Madonna.

Reviled as a ‘mansplainer’ of extraordinary proportions by those who wince every time he talks over co-host Susanna Reid (NB: I’ve always thought of him as a ‘Morgan-splainer’ – he’ll do it to anyone, gender-irrespective: an equal opportunities-splainer); subject to Ofcom complaints regarding his ‘bullying’ on-air demeanour – being blocked by him on Twitter was regarded as a badge of honour by many, a sign you were doing something righteous and right.

Yet – I’ve always liked him. I liked Piers Morgan long before it was fashionable. I’ve known him for about 15 years, through various professional and public incarnations, one axing (from the CNN show, which he hosted as a replacement for Larry King from 2010 to 2014), and his – do we call it an ascendance? – on GMB, when a guest fill-in in the summer of 2015 somehow turned into a permanent slot.

I’ve gaped at his appetite for friction and feuds, marvelled at his association with Donald Trump, wondered how Susanna Reid survived him, wished he’d let other people speak sometimes… But also knew him – professionally and personally. Knew him to be an excellent journalist, but also enormously good fun, loyal, generous. If I felt uncomfortable at times, about how many people of a truly distasteful political disposition were confusing his contrarian stances with their own poisonous, political agenda, I also knew Piers to be in possession of a fundamentally decent moral compass.

At my heart, I’ve always been a liberal.

‘At my heart, I’ve always been a liberal,’ he says now. ‘I just have a problem with illiberal liberalism: “You will agree with me or you’ll get cancelled, shamed, vilified, bullied and abused.” That is not what liberals should be doing.’

When the corona crisis stirred and Piers took up the position for which he is now being lauded by people amazed to find themselves lauding him at all, I thought: Yeah. That’s about right. Piers was one of the first public figures to raise the alarm about the Government’s slow response to Covid; he started screaming for lockdown weeks before it was implemented, predicting that Britain was headed for a situation comparable to the unthinkable horrors we were observing in Italy.

How did he know? ‘I was paying close attention. Particularly when Italy began to blow up. Late February, you could see this was going to be big. But what’s striking to me is how casual and complacent the British Government was. It got completely sidetracked by Brexit. Brexit got done on 31 January. On 29 January, the World Health Organization called this “a global health emergency”. But you see Matt Hancock, a week earlier, in the Commons, saying, “We’ve got this! It’s all under control!” And here we are, by the start of June, with the worst death rate in the world and second highest death toll. On every single level, the handling of the crisis to me has been scandalous. Possibly criminally negligent.’

I’m trying to assess how much the crisis has changed Piers. I’ve definitely noticed changes in his sensibilities and sensitivities while watching him on GMB. We are interviewing in the awful aftermath of the death in police custody of George Floyd; for days, I’ve watched Piers refer regularly and sincerely to his ‘white privilege’ (words I never thought I’d hear him say; did he think he’d ever use them? ‘No. No!’), ask if Madeleine McCann’s story would have generated the same interest had she been Black, and tweet how proud he was of his son Stanley for attending the London Black Lives Matter protest.

When I ask him about racial politics, he says, ‘It’s not really about the George Floyd moments. They are horrific to everybody who has even a remote conscience. But it’s the subliminal chip, chip, chip-away racism, which eats away at people from ethnic minority groups. And I totally get that, I want to be more on that.’

It’s almost like we’re seeing a newly woke Piers – which, given how derisively he’s treated the concept of wokeness, would be quite the turnabout. ‘I’ve woken up. I’ve had an awakening. Not in a woke way. But I have woken up.’ What’s the distinction? ‘I can be inflammatory. Over the top. My platform [Twitter, GMB, his Daily Mail column] …it’s a big chunk of platform. When I think about how you wield that, I think I’ve certainly wielded it in a better, more responsible manner [lately].

When I look back at the Meghan Markle stuff, I think maybe there was a better way of handling it.

‘The passion and sometimes venom I bring into stuff is far better distributed over serious issues than it is over whether people want a Greggs’ vegan sausage roll, or wear a papoose. When I look back at the Meghan Markle stuff [he led the angry media charge against Meghan and Harry, when the couple began detaching themselves from the royal family and the UK], maybe there was a better way of handling it. It all seemed so important at the time, now it seems so irrelevant. I was able to watch her talking [in her video] about George Floyd and think she made some good points.’

All of this is compounded by his estrangement from Donald Trump. Their relationship was ground zero on much fashionable liberal ire against him. Their friendship dated back to 2008, when Piers won Donald Trump’s US version of Celebrity Apprentice; the two had maintained it, until Piers questioned Trump’s handling of the corona crisis. How is he feeling about his old mate now?

‘Uh… not great. I’ve always made a point of saying I’d never vote for him. We disagree on too many things: gun control, climate change. I’ve written more than 100 columns about Donald Trump, and over 50% of them have been critical. It’s nothing new that I criticise him. What is new is that I’ve been pretty relentless since the start of this pandemic, to the degree where, after he said we should all be ingesting detergent, I told him to shut the fuck up. At that point, he unfollowed me. So I don’t know what our relationship is. Things have gone a bit quiet, put it that way.’

Piers doesn’t think the US President deserves to win re-election in November. ‘Not if he carries on being this divisive, if he carries on showing zero empathy.’ What about Boris: does he deserve re-election? ‘No! He’s very lucky he’s four years away from an election.’ As for his personal experience of lockdown, Piers is spending it in his house in west London, with his eight-year-old daughter Elise and his wife, the journalist Celia Walden, who has cut his hair twice.

‘I was a bit unnerved when she said, “Don’t worry, I’ve been looking at some YouTube videos…” but full credit to Celia, she’s come through.’ How has their relationship been in lockdown? ‘It’s very handy to be married to a calm person. We don’t have any arguments. I couldn’t come home and just have a load more arguments.’

He thought he had Covid-19 in early May, got really scared. ‘Suddenly, over a weekend, I felt really rough. Really bad breathlessness, then I got a persistent cough. I rang a respiratory guy I’d seen a year ago for bronchitis, and he said, “You better get a test.” And while I waited for that test result, 36 hours, all I knew was, I was in my mid-fifties, carrying a bit of timber, and looking at people like Boris, who nearly died, and poor old Derek Draper, Kate Garraway’s husband, who is still fighting for his life, and thinking: this could be me. Anyone who doesn’t feel unnerved by what this virus can do to people, especially of a certain age, or weight, or BAME background, or you’re on the frontline… I was very relieved to discover I didn’t have it.’

He tells me that, in all the furore over his ‘reinvention’, people are overlooking Susanna Reid’s contribution. ‘She never gets enough credit. She’s a formidable journalist. We operate as a team. I couldn’t do what I do if Susanna wasn’t doing what she does.’ He commends Lady Gaga – a target for his criticism, pre-corona – for raising $30m with an online concert. ‘She’s proved me wrong and I said so. She “liked” that tweet.’ Then he rings off, so he can go for his customary after-show sleep, and so ends the most serious conversation Piers Morgan and I have ever had.

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